Craft in Conversation — John Wentworth

Interview with the craftsman who makes our Stumps and Trunks

Material reverence and connection to craft is core to Kalon. Building on our Living Materials series, today we kick off our Craft in Conversation interviews as a celebration of all the work that goes into creating American-made furniture today. It’s not only a way to spotlight the extended Kalon family, but an invitation to consider the full story of an object — where each piece comes from, how they’re made, and the hands that make them.

First up is John Wentworth of Monson, Maine, a 13th generation Mainer and third generation furniture maker responsible for creating our beloved Stumps and Trunks.

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Kalon: How did you start working with Kalon?

John: We had a family furniture business that my grandfather started in 1947 with 250 employees at the height, two factories, and our own sawmill. We also made products for other people, including Ethan Allen for many years. Johann had done some research and had contacted us, but we passed on the work at the time because we were focused on our own products. But after the company closed in 2007, I was trying to figure out what else I could do. Johann and I started talking again and the Stumps and Trunks seemed like a good fit because I have a sawmill nearby that saws blocks big enough to make them. Most mills don’t work with logs that size, but these guys do exactly that for another product they make. The stars were in alignment.

K: What goes into sourcing a log that becomes a Stump or Trunk?

J: When I go to the sawmill, I get a piece of wood that’s 16 feet long and either 12 inches by 12 inches or 14 by 14 for the Trunks. They weigh about a thousand pounds a piece. Probably one in 200 trees is good enough for us to make a Stump, and one in 500 is good enough to make a Trunk.

K: What’s your relationship with the sawmill?

J: I yuck it up with those guys. I’ve given them some Stump seconds and cutting boards and I repair chairs for them. So they take care of me. When a log comes in that is the quality we need, they’ll say ”oh, John needs that log.” So I maintain that relationship as much as I can, because the guys will watch for when a log comes in and they’ll set it aside and save the good ones for me. That’s part of the key to making this whole thing work. The relationships along the way.

K: How did you come to start working with wood?

J: The family furniture business was located in town. I grew up going to the factory when I was six years old with my father on weekends and evenings, smelling wood and seeing how everything was done. When you start like that, you take for granted that everybody knows how to make furniture. It’s kinda been in my blood.

K: And what’s Monson like?

J: It’s a town of 680 people. I grew up here, my mother still lives in the same house I grew up in. My grandparents, aunts, and uncles lived across the street. Everyone knows everyone. For years and years, the industry was wood products, a lot of paper mills and what we call secondary wood products like furniture, golf tees, dowels, and popsicle sticks. Most of these mills have closed. There’s only three left of a dozen or so that were here 20 years ago. But towns out here are trying to reinvent themselves, figuring out what the next chapter is, and Monson is very fortunate there. We are the last town before the Hundred-Mile-Wilderness on the Appalachian trail, so a lot of hikers pass through to resupply. Monson also attracted some people from an organization based out of Portland, called the Libra Foundation. They’ve taken on Monson as a project, helping rehab the main street, establish art residencies, and attract more people. So for a little town of 600, 700 people, there’s a lot of action.K: What is your relationship with nature when making the Stumps and Trunks?

J:  Access to wood changes with weather conditions. And the wood itself also changes depending on the environment. You can see it in the rings: Tight grain means there was probably a long period of drought or some other condition that slowed growth. Every piece of wood tells a story. Last week, I came across one that must have been tapped for maple syrup, because you could see the tap holes. And a couple weeks ago, I got an ash log here at the log yard. We counted 220 rings on it, which means it probably was at least 220 years old. It’s humbling, and it makes me feel good to know that a log like that is going to be used for something that’ll last a lot longer than it would in the other products that are typically made with them.K: What do you enjoy most about the work you do?

J: To me, it comes back to people. Yeah, I like working with wood, but all the interactions I have, whether it’s with the guys at the sawmill, or even you folks at the studio, are what make it. My shop door is wide open, kind of like the local coffee shop and sometimes, I don’t get much done in the daytime because people are dropping by to borrow a tool or just to stop and talk.

K: What’s something you want someone buying a Stump or Trunk to know?

J: When you buy a loaf of bread at the store, it’s easy to think it’s just a loaf of bread. But someone grew the wheat, milled the wheat, and baked that bread. There’s a stream of things that we don’t think about, that we take for granted. And I think even something as simple, and the Stumps and Trunks are very simple, but even something simple like a Stump or Trunk has this type of journey. From somebody in the woods finding that tree, harvesting that tree, processing it through the saw mill, to me working on it and forming it… a lot of hands touch that. And everybody puts their own little piece of a little piece of themselves into that piece of work.

Photos by Greta Rybus for Kalon Studios.